Life as a slave: Staking a claim to the American experience

History tell us who belongs, who matters and why.

My teaching and research highlights and explains the complexities of racism against black Americans in the formative years of the nation and provides much-needed context for current debates about racial tension and inequity.

Overall, Wisconsinites held very few slaves. Yet, the existence and practice of race-based slavery in the territory and state shaped white attitudes about African Americans because they associated blackness with slavery – the antithesis of citizenship.

As a historian who examines the experiences of black people in British and French North America from the 17th century through the 19th century, I retrieve the hidden and unexplored histories of African Americans in small towns and cities in the North and Midwest.

Though historians have not sufficiently examined these places, the stories I tell show how black people managed their lives in places where they were a small minority. Only by including their stories can the full and varied dimensions of the American experience be appreciated, because African American history is American history.

My first book “Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island,” examines the business of slavery, economic activity that was directly related to the maintenance of slaveholding in the Americas.

Specifically, I look at how the buying and selling of people, food and goods shaped the experience of slavery, the process of emancipation, and the realities of black freedom in the North from the colonial period through the American Civil War.

In the book I am writing now, “Black on the Wisconsin Frontier: From Slavery to Suffrage, 1740 to 1866,” I examine how the limited practice of race-based slavery, contested African American settlements, and debates over abolition and black rights shaped white-black race relations in the Midwest.

There were just a few dozen enslaved blacks in Wisconsin in the colonial period, and the vast majority of blacks in the territory were free by 1840. And although most white Wisconsinites were free labor advocates, they were not abolitionists – those who worked actively to end slavery.

So even though the state served as a safe haven for fugitive slaves, black settlers were not welcome and black men were barred from voting until 1866.

My research directly informs my teaching. Slavery is one of the most charged topics in American discourse and many students are initially reluctant to engage. But the vast majority open up when they realize what is at stake, that history meets basic human needs.

It gives us personal and national identity, legitimizes our culture and explains our world. To deny a people their history denies their humanity and perpetuates oppression.

We discuss how the marginalization of the history of African Americans has skewed our understanding of the nation as a whole, and black Americans in particular.

I ask students how their personal, local, and national histories inform how they understand themselves in the world. These opportunities to think critically about these questions and issues helps prepare students to excel in an increasingly diverse and dynamic state, nation and world.